Early in Cynthia Cook’s career, celebrities like Madonna, Pearl Jam and Paul Simon began collecting her work.
The Albuquerque-based multi-media artist creates a fusion of retablo, collage and metalwork in boxes both personal and spiritual.
She sources her tin frames from discarded food cans.
“Everything changed when I discovered food can metal,” Cook said.
She adapted the jewelry techniques she learned at her parents’ Old Town souvenir shop to tin.
“I like to joke that rubber tomahawks put me through Parsons School of Design,” the artist said. “My parents also represented a number of Native American artists who did the highest level of work.”
They asked their young daughter to pose in the store window’s silversmithing studio, braiding her hair to appear native as she soldered. Tourists would point at her and tell their kids, “Look, a real Indian girl.” Cook bucked their stereotypical expectations by adding streaks of blue to her hair in punk rebellion.
Cook headed to Parsons after graduating from Highland High School, and finished her BFA in metals at the University of New Mexico after growing tired of the Manhattan winters and suffering from green chile withdrawal.
She celebrated her first solo show in 1997 in New York’s Soho.
A friend of the transgressive photographer Joel-Peter Witkin she since she posed nude for him at 17 for a 1993 Vanity Fair profile, she embraces nature as her church, scattering seed pods, wasps’ nests and old photographs into her work. Her tinwork combines Native American silversmithing, medieval chasework and the French technique of repoussé (hammering a piece of malleable metal to create a design in low relief).
“I am what you call a whitesmith because I do not use any heat when I’m forming my metal,” she explained.
She prefers food cans to mined tin because it is an alloy of tin, aluminum and steel.
“Steel rusts and I like the fact that steel interacts with the environment,” Cook said. “You get a blush of rust. I like to weather the can metal to get a patina that looks like old pawn jewelry.”
“I like to glorify entropy,” she added. “It gives an aesthetic that the future is old.”
Cook forms intimate, hand-sized pieces as well as large shadow boxes centered by collages.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as a pair of cicada wings in the body of the work,” she said. “It’s a macabre regatta of elements like insect wings, leaf skeletons, tomatillo husks like lacy Chinese lanterns. I use stones I find hiking. I’ve been known took use cat fur and dog fur and even (found) butterfly wings.”
She sometimes incorporates man-made objects such as the discarded glass she finds in Albuquerque’s “glass fields” by the Rio Grande near the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
“It was where the city dump was when Albuquerque was the railroad boom town,” she explained. “In the ’70s, people began exploring it.”
The twisted glass from an old frame adds a sense of dreams and illusions to her work, she added.
“I use a lot of trash in my imagery,” Cook said. “I use images I get from magazines, junk mail.”
This summer will mark her 31st year in Santa Fe’s Contemporary Hispanic Market. Her demure demeanor belies the inner Goth girl who once hung out with Mötley Crue and Ozzy Osbourne.
She maintains art forms her first priority for being alive. The social distancing produced by the coronavirus is nothing new to her.
“I have to be by myself to do my work,” she said. “I’m isolated anyway. I’m always getting the work done in the winter for sale in the summer.”
Cook’s work hangs in the Albuquerque Museum and in the National Hispanic Cultural Center.